Awards Season Yields a Hidden Gem: Pariah
Awards season is upon us, and the past few weeks have seen a barrage of art-house releases in major metropolitan areas. Pariah is one of the stand-outs of the bunch—it’s a strong film from a queer woman of color New Yorker with breathtakingly subtle depictions of young sexuality that feel neither exploitative nor forced.
The lives of queer black young women are, to state what may be obvious, a rare subject for even independent films, and Pariah has the even more unique quality of feeling lived-in for long stretches, allowing the struggles and dilemmas of the main character to unfold as things do in life—haltingly and ambiguously. Unfortunately, the movie also wears the heavy mantles of Important Film, Black Film, Queer Film, and Great American Coming of Age Story, and as such it tends to overcompensate for its quiet moments of hard-earned wisdom with ill-placed histrionics.
Adepero Oduye is exquisite, inhabiting the lead role of Alike (ah-LEE-kay), a 17-year-old whose emergent sexuality and gender expression provides the center for the film. The opening scenes of the film show her in a lesbian club in Brooklyn, trying to figure out how her own desires and identity fit in with the dancers, the music and the other AGs ("a slang term, for lesbians who identify as “aggressive”—think butch, but more black") while also negotiating the fear and reticence that comes with adolescent sexuality.
From there, we see Alike travel the physical and mental distance to her home, changing her appearance along the way to fit the aesthetic her mother thinks is appropriate for her. These few minutes, along with her uncomfortable and tight-lipped interactions with her tension-filled patriarchal family, give the audience a tremendous introduction to an enduring character navigating a series of interlocking paradoxes. The film-making is beautiful, skillful, well-compressed and empathetic in a way films about working-class people rarely allow.
Alike's relationship with her friend Laura, an out lesbian with a job who frequents clubs and night spots, is another element that brings the film to life. Laura encourages Alike to take risks sexually, to put herself out there, and Alike is both envious of Laura's outgoingness and disappointed that she's unable to behave the same way. This relationship is juxtaposed against Alike’s interactions with hipsterish Bina, providing friction and strife that is both mundane and breathtakingly callous.
Near the middle of the film, as strife in her parents’ relationship becomes more apparent and her mother gets more controlling about how Alike dresses and spends her time, the quiet moments and loaded interactions that made the beginning so striking start to take a back seat to clumsy demonstrations of conflict. The familiar rhythms of The Coming of Age Story and Issue Movie and the requisite emotional tenor of Oscar Bait begin to infiltrate the film’s unique tone, and, though the film remains compelling, it begins to waiver.
This is director Dee Rees' first film, and while she demonstrates real flair for conveying the social and psychological struggles of queer youth, she stumbles into blustery melodrama in an attempt to put exclamation points where no such emphasis is needed. Pariah has moments of blunt interpersonal conflict that would not have been out of place in Crash, and it suffers for it. The film didn't need these maladroit declarations of points already amply demonstrated. It feels like Rees was worried subtlety would go over viewers’ (or perhaps potential distributors’) heads and that clarity was more important than grace and art.
The most enduring aspects of Pariah are in the found poetry of lived experience, which suffers under the didacticism of the second half.
We have many advocates insisting on the worth and value and humanity of queer women of color, but rarely do I see it demonstrated as it is in this film. This film has sections that stand up, both artistically and politically, with the best work of Audre Lorde (who's quoted for the epigraph) and Gloria Anzaldua, but an important distinction between how I experience their work and Pariah is not the content, intent, or politics—it’s the medium. Fictionalized, personal film is much harder to do didactically with skill than autobiographical hybrid poetry-prose essays.
The poetic and cinematic moments of Pariah are when it is at its clearest and most urgent, not when it's stressing its own urgency (as it does with its name). Rees has a strong cinematic sensibility and is able to use film in ways that escape the written word, like the quiet moments when Alike is changing from her AG self to her home self, but she's hindered by the media used by her inspirations.
All this is to say that the film isn’t perfect, but it is moving, even indelible. The jittery tonal shifts (not unexpected from a first time filmmaker) never overtake the skill or resonance of the rest of the work, and Pariah is both a cinematic and political artifact that will be valued for a long time.
As the artsy subsidiaries of the large studios are releasing their "finds" from last year's film festivals, hoping to snag Academy Awards and think-piece column inches on the backs of the American indie scene, hopefully Pariah will get its due. The more new people who visit Colorlines (which has good material on the film) and learn about FIERCE (the organization fighting for the queer youth at the piers) as a result, the more I'll soften to the film’s rough edges.
Sam Menefee-Libey is the LGBTQ Advocate with Campus Progress.